Thursday, August 16, 2007

Harry Potter's Fabulous Jewish Monsters III

More letters about this article (I, II) in this week's The Jewish Press (link):

Breath Of Fresh Air

I was very pleased to read that Rabbi Natan Slifkin’s Sacred Monsters has finally been published (“Harry Potter’s Fabulous Jewish Monsters,” front-page essay, Aug. 3). Whereas the impertinent ban on the book’s predecessor, Mysterious Creatures, precluded my acquisition of that tract, I am glad to now have the opportunity to absorb Rabbi Slifkin’s wisdom regarding the more unusual creatures mentioned in our sacred literature.

I was stunned, therefore, to read Dovid Kornreich’s letter to the editor (Aug. 10) in which he takes Rabbi Slifkin to task for asserting that the Talmudic Sages were not infallible in matters of science. While Rabbi Slifkin insists that this approach allows Jews to reconcile science and Torah, Kornreich asserts that “it is completely counterproductive … to cater to a mindset (one perhaps shared by Rabbi Slifkin himself) that cannot accept, in principle, the real existence of a supernatural reality.”

Rather, says Kornreich, we should “firmly believe that the world of the spirit is more real than the world of the laboratory.”

I have no clue as to Kornreich’s intent. Is he saying that Rabbi Slifkin does not believe in miracles? I know Rabbi Slifkin, and I can categorically declare that this is untrue. Rabbi Slifkin has a firm belief in Torah. He does not deny the supernatural; rather, he understands that God created the natural along with the supernatural, and that the world generally operates according to God’s laws of nature. Miracles are the exception, not the rule. Legends in the Talmud often should be interpreted allegorically, not literally. And yes, the Talmudic Sages did err in matters of science.

This latter point is not novel. It is expressed by Rav Avraham, the son of the Rambam, in his classic treatise on the subject that is printed as a preface to Ein Yaakov. Moreover, Rabbi Yitzchak Lampronti, in his Pachad Yitzchak, argues that the Talmudic declaration that lice may be killed on Shabbat is grounded in the premise that lice are spontaneously generated. Writing in the eighteenth century, after spontaneous generation had been disproved, he states that one should not kill lice on Shabbos. The Pachad Yitzchak can be found in almost every yeshiva. No one has tried to ban it for stating that the Sages erred in a scientific matter, even though that matter affects Jewish law.

It is unfortunate that we live in a time when part of the right-wing Torah world chooses to turn its back on unassailable scientific truths. This element, with whom Kornreich evidently aligns, believes that if Chazal made any mistakes in science, the entire edifice of Torah crumbles. Rabbi Slifkin sees things differently. His view is that occasional errors by the Talmudic Sages, who were anchored to the science of their times, does not undermine their authority at all. It merely affirms their humanity.

The deplorable banning of Rabbi Slifkin’s books by segments of the extreme right achieves nothing except to make some of us skeptical of that element. For those of us who believe, as the Talmud says, that God’s seal is emmet, truth, Rabbi Slifkin’s intellectual honesty remains a breath of fresh air.

Avi Goldstein
Far Rockaway, NY

Science Not Infallible

Rabbi Slifkin in his front-page essay cunningly characterized science as the sine qua non of truth. With this model, any statement that even appears to be at odds with conventional scientific wisdom must be rejected out of hand.

It’s a simple matter to present various midrashim and Talmudic dictums which seemingly do not jibe with modern science and then suggest that our rabbinic teachings must therefore be flawed. The fly in Slifkin’s ointment is that science – yes, “holy science” – is by no means infallible. In fact, scientific information is subject to constant change.

I am no prophet, but I can predict with certainty that within twenty years most of what the scientific community presently believes will be relegated to the dustbin of history. It’s the height of foolishness to abandon the truths given by Hashem to Moshe Rabbeinu more than three thousand years ago, and faithfully recorded by our Sages in the Talmud and midrashim, because of slavish belief in scientific notions that will not survive their adherents.

As for Slifkin’s concern that our youth will become disenchanted because of certain enigmatic statements in the Talmud and midrashim, is he similarly troubled by problematic passages in the Chumash? Will he subject Toras Moshe to scientific scrutiny, and if so, would it pass muster? I’m quite sure the critics would look askance at Bilaam’s talking donkey, to cite just one example.

Dr. Yaakov Stern
Brooklyn, NY

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